Detroit, Belle Isle and Elysium

Posted on September 3, 2013


© Josh Sager – August 2013


The 2013 movie Elysium is a very well-done sci-fi action movie that has numerous thematic tie-ins to real-life situations. These connections are unsurprising, as Elysium is a product of Neill Blomkamp, who has a history of mixing real-life sociopolitical issues into his science fiction films (ex. Blomkamp’s last film, District 9, was an allegory for the South African apartheid situation).

When one looks past the sci-fi themes, improbable action sequences and advanced technologies present in the story, Elysium becomes a depressingly accurate—if somewhat exaggerated—analog for the situation facing the population of Detroit.

The bankruptcy of Detroit has opened the possibility that Belle Isle—a small island in the Detroit River under the authority of the Detroit Recreation Department—may be sold to private interests and turned into a private, pay-to-join commonwealth that follows its own legal system.

Belle Isle may not be an orbiting space station and Detroit may not be the hellscape portrayed in the movie, but the concept of a privatized Belle Isle directly parallels the spirit of the movie. In both cases, the wealthy in society create their own utopic “island” in the sea of poverty and decayed infrastructure; these wealthy individuals withdraw from the greater society into their wealthy-only enclave and let the public suffer in poverty


Spoilers Start

The movie Elysium follows Max Da Costa, a young man with a history of run-ins with the law but a desire to stay on the straight and narrow. He lives in a world where poverty, pollution and overpopulation are rampant, while healthcare and the possibility for economic advancement are virtually non-existent. The rich live in an orbital space-station—wanting for nothing—and use a combination of robotic enforcers and psychopathic “agents” in order to repress the population of earth and prevent illegal access to the paradisiacal Elysium station.

 elysium-the-station elysium

After getting exposed to a lethal dose of radiation because of his employer’s heartlessness, the protagonist ends up on a desperate quest to get to the medical technologies of Elysium; while doing this, he inadvertently interrupts a coup by stealing a program which can reset the Elysium system and upend the established social order.

Because the Elysium reboot program is stored in his brain, the protagonist finds himself being chased by three psychopathic sleeper agents while trying to gain transport to Elysium. Eventually, this chase ends on Elysium, where the protagonist has to fight the agents (who have now gone rouge and started to kill indiscriminately) in order to access the mainframe and use the reset program.

After killing the agents, the protagonist and one of the smugglers access the mainframe and reset it so that every citizen of earth is considered a citizen of Elysium—this dispatches the medical robots, which presumably go down to earth and begin healing all of humanity’s medical problems. Unfortunately, the extraction of the reset program kills that protagonist and the story end on a bittersweet note.

Elysium touches on a huge number of real-life sociopolitical issues—here are a few examples:

  • Universal Healthcare: many of those trying to get to Elysium are in need of “med bays” to get treated for otherwise untreatable ailments (earth hospitals are underfunded, overcrowded, and swamped).
  • Immigration: the leadership of Elysium utilizes brutal methods to enforce immigration laws while crews of smugglers (virtually analogous to modern “coyotes” on the southern border) get people across the borders for a profit.
  • Injustice in the Justice System: the population of earth is held under an authoritarian and extremely repressive legal system that automatizes (ex. the police and ‘parole officers” are machines) and enforces draconian punishments (ex. breaking Max’s arm for no reason)
  • Surveillance: Everything on earth and in Elysium is monitored through satellites and drones (they can even monitor vital signs and diagnose injuries remotely).

While all of these issues are extremely important, this article will focus purely upon the privatization and socioeconomic balkanization aspects of the Elysium story.


Spoilers End


In 2013, Detroit became the largest American city to declare bankruptcy. The once-great city of Detroit has been ravaged by the decay of the American automotive industry and the rise of industrial outsourcing. The elimination of the economic engine of the city (industrial work) has caused the tax base of Detroit to fall below sustainable levels and has made the city’s finances essentially impossible to balance.

Currently, the city is in bankruptcy proceedings and there has yet to be a determination as to the services which will be cut, obligations which will be protected, and assets which will be sold off. In short, Detroit is spending far more than it can afford and will need to choose how to make up the difference between its tax revenue and the cost of its obligations.

It is almost certain that many government services will be cut, including pension obligations to retired state workers. Unfortunately, it appears that poor people who rely on social services and retired state workers will bear the brunt of the economic pain, while the investors and banking institutions that have stakes in Detroit will skate by relatively unscathed.

In addition to cutting programs and modifying contracts, Detroit has begun considering the sale of public goods in order to lessen the economic burden on the city—included in these assets being considered for sale is the island of Belle Isle. A private consortium has begun seeking the ability to purchase Belle Isle and turn it into a private colony, independent from all existing government.


Belle Isle: A Modern Elysium

The potential society on Belle Isle would be a tax-free commonwealth which governs itself and only gives citizenship to those who can pay a significant fee. As an independent entity from the United States, the commonwealth of Belle Isle would set its own laws, tax rates, and economic regulations.

Exact specifics about the laws and regulations that would be applied to citizens of Belle Isle are currently unknown (they have yet to be drawn up yet), but Rod Lockwood—a major proponent of the Belle Isle commonwealth—has expressed that the new commonwealth would be a “private city-state with a focus on free market capitalism and limited government.”

Given Lockwood’s comments, it is likely that Citizens of Belle Isle would have a privatized infrastructure where residents would have access to the very best of everything—essentially; it would be a large-scale version of a gated residential community. Through the use of private schools, security personnel, health providers, and transportation services, the citizens of Belle Isle would be able to unpack expenses and avoid any semblance of civic responsibility.

Unlike in a normal commonwealth, those who fall on hard times in Belle Isle would likely be extruded from the island in order to prevent them from being a burden. After all, there is plenty of space in the poverty-stricken Detroit for those who cannot afford the gilded luxury of Belle Isle.


If Detroit’s bankruptcy leads officials to sell Belle Isle to a private consortium, it will become the modern equivalent to the gated society of Elysium:

  1. Elysium and Belle Isle are both physically isolated communities of wealthy people surrounded by large populations of poor workers. The Detroit River is certainly less of an obstacle than the vacuum of space, but the idea of such a buffer is the same in both societies.
  2. Elysium and Belle Isle are both examples of societies where the wealthy are able to avoid the consequences of a decaying society. It doesn’t matter how bad pollution, unemployment, crime, or the integrity of the infrastructure for the poor is, as the wealthy living on Elysium and Belle Isle have their own accommodations.
  3. Elysium and Belle Isle both represent two-tiered justice systems based upon social stratification—the wealthy are given the protection of the law while the poor live under a draconian justice system. The security forces of Belle Isle, like those of Elysium, would exist to protect the wealthy would be far less harsh than the police who look over those who aren’t lucky enough to be rich.
  4. Residents of both Elysium and Belle Isle have no responsibility for paying back to society—they aren’t expected to pay taxes in order to support those who are less fortunate, or even the education of those who work for them. Rather than have a stake in the welfare of the society that makes their goods, these wealthy individuals can escape to an insulated bubble and enjoy the high life with no consideration for others.
  5. Immigration requirements in both Belle Isle and Elysium are presumably a function of wealth and power. In short, if you have enough money to buy a “ticket,” you are allowed into the wealthy enclave.

If we can learn one thing from the vision of Mr. Blomkamp, it is that there are terrible human costs when the wealthy are allowed to withdraw into their own bubble and leave the rest of us to rot. As predicted in Elysium, such a divide will inevitably result in the decay of the society populated by those who are less wealthy (when the rich withdraw, the poor lack the resources to sustain an infrastructure) and the relegation of the vast majority of humanity to a serf class, laboring for poverty wages and with no potential for advancement.